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The Arctic Is Hot and Full of Algae

Climate is changing in weird ways up there.

The Arctic.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

As climate world fixated this week on the final wranglings at COP28, the researchers studying our changing planet delivered more bad news about the Arctic.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 18th annual Arctic Report Card was packed this year with words like “exceptional,” “extreme,” “unprecedented,” and “uncharted,” as one of the harshest places on Earth continues to melt and bloom before our eyes.

Arctic sea ice contracted in 2023 to the sixth-lowest level in the satellite record as the region sweltered under its hottest summer and sixth-hottest year ever documented. Record low May snow cover in North America was followed by the worst season in the history of Canada’s Northwest Territories, where over 16,000 square miles — an area almost twice the size of New Jersey — burned, displacing about two-thirds of residents over the course of the summer. Scandinavia, meanwhile, experienced its wettest August yet, as heavy storms triggered landslides and sent rivers spilling over their banks.

“This year is the year when things are really turning,” Tero Mustonen, an environmental researcher in Finland who contributed to the report, told The New York Times. “The north is now in a place where things will rapidly shift.”

There’s more to the transformation than disappearing glaciers and rising seas, though. Funkier things are happening, too.

Rising ocean temperatures pose a growing risk of melting — and releasing the carbon dioxide and methane trapped in — close to 400,000 square miles of underwater permafrost. Marine algae is thriving in the warmer waters, with its abundance in the Eurasian Arctic rising by 57% over the last two decades and once-rare harmful algal blooms becoming more frequent. Vegetation is also proliferating on land in the tundra, which has seen all eight of its greenest years in the satellite record since 2010 and marked its third-greenest year in 2023.

And while chinook and chum salmon populations crash, devastating Alaskan fisheries, there are more sockeye returning than fishermen know what to do with. In 2022, the number of sockeye in Bristol Bay was nearly double the 30-year mean.

With 2023 now confirmed as the world’s hottest year in modern history, the scientists behind the report also warn that it’s only a matter of time before the unrelenting pace of climate change in the Arctic is felt by the rest of the globe.

“The Arctic is now more relevant to us than it has ever been before,” NOAA administrator Rick Spinrad told NPR. Much of the things happening in the Arctic, he said, are “the kinds of impacts that we're going to see elsewhere in the country” in the not-so-distant future.

“What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic,” he said.

Nicole Pollack profile image

Nicole Pollack

Nicole Pollack is a freelance environmental journalist who writes about energy, agriculture, and climate change. She is based in Northeast Ohio.

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